Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Completely Off-Topic: A New CD Project!

THIS CD, soon out from the super-duper-great UK reissue label, Ace Records, is a project of mine. I conceived and co-programmed this set with the great Mick Patrick. I wrote over 4,000 words of biographical liner notes for the set, based on exclusive interviews I conducted with the disc's subjects, songwriter-performers Phil (P.F.) Sloan and Steve Barri. (Mick and I worked on the song-by-song notes together; he did the lion's share of them.)

This has absolutely nothing to do with John Stanley. Well, kinda-sorta... The '60s efforts of Sloan and Barri are another of my long-time popcult fascinations. This is the first-ever legitimate compilation of the duo's hits and rarities as songwriters. I would have liked there to be a larger percentage of rarities, as the hits are easily obtainable, all over the dang place, and some of Sloan-Barri's best material is also their most obscure. Say lah vee; I'm happy with the project overall.

It's a handsome package, with superb sound quality. Like Germany's Bear Family Records, Ace takes the extra effort to do things right. The liner notes are something I'm proud of--they appear almost 100% as I wrote them. In my oft-Quixotic 30 year career as a freelance writer, it's exceedingly rare for my writing to not get mangled in some way in the final published version. Decidedly NOT the case here... let's hope this is a permanent change for yours truly!

HERE is a link to Amazon's listing for the CD. It makes its official debut on June 8th. If you're among the 35% of Americans who can afford to still buy the occasional CD, consider this one.

End of self-promotion. Thanks for your kind indulgence.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More of Stanley's Krazy Kat: from issue #5, 1952 with a chaser from '55

It's been nearly two years since I posted examples of John Stanley's curious take on the cult classic George Herriman comic strip Krazy Kat.

This series was an apparent challenge to Stanley. The first two issues show him struggling to get a grip on these felicitous characters, and the whimsical settings--both at odds with his prior, mostly urban/suburban material. Of course, just as he was getting into the Kokonino Kounty groove, Dell had to cancel the series.

These are some stories from the last issue of the first KK run. This untitled "Ignatz Mouse" story is very similar to a couple of contemporary Little Lulu stories. "Space Kids," from LL 56 (September, 1953), shows Tubby an' Th' Gang [TM] attempting a similar space-age mind fudge on Lulu and Annie. In "Trip To The Moon" (LL 86, August, 1955), the rascals fake-out Lulu into believing she's gone to--I don't need to finish typing that sentence, do I?

This theme surfaces other times in Stanley's LL and Tubby stories. Free to portray the "Tubby Type" in its apotheosis, Stanley lets Ignatz run rampant in his astro-prank, as you'll see...

Lively cartooning, imbued with that unmistakable "Stanley Spike," sells the antic events of this story swimmingly. My favorite moment: the worthy-of-Samuel Beckett Page Four, Panel Two.

Air travel is a theme in this issue. This longer story takes more time to explore its absurd set-up, and is peppered with sprightly word-play. Stanley let himself romp on the pages of this funnybook...

Ignatz' single-minded pursuit of an exhausting, complex prank again reminds us of Master Tompkins. This story plays as a sort-of Tubby daydream. There is an air of wish-gratification in the careening events: the kind of mid-day fantasia a bored Tub might have, fighting off post-lunch sleepiness in the back of Miss Feeny's class.

As freewheeling theater-of-the-absurd entertainment, these Krazy komix have their undeniable charms. As with the recently posted New Terrytoons material, this isn't first-rate John Stanley. But there is a sense of joy and abandon. While he continues to work within the formulae of Little Lulu, he is able to take greater risks with the characters--which he clearly enjoys. Unlike Lulu, Krazy is a sort of Zen airhead. His/her lack of emotional reaction to Ignatz' mischief is disarming.

There is displayed a certain reverence for the original Geo. Herriman conception of the strip. Stanley, who was usually prone to re-invent the cast, add new characters, and otherwise slant the personas of his adopted, licensed figures, stays fairly true to the vibe of the original. He is, perhaps, more clever than Herriman--one does not sense the intellectual struggles that make Herriman's work fascinating and transcendent.

When I read Herriman's Krazy, I strongly sense the hard effort of thinking. I don't feel that funny stuff came to him as automatically as it did to Stanley. Herriman and Carl Barks have this in common: their work feels ponderous (altho' in a good way). While Stanley's work has obvious smarts to it, I don't think he puzzled over his work. It feels as though he got 'in the zone' and just produced these stories in a burst.

I can't say for sure. This remains the "Rosebud" of John Stanley: I still know almost nothing about the man. I have been in contact with Stanley's son, James, and with a former Dell Comics editor, with whom I hope to do an interview, who worked with Stanley in the 1960s. It is my hope that both these individuals can help me shed some light on who Stanley was as a person, and how he developed his sense of humor, and appreciation of the absurd.

For now, I'm just wondering out loud here. I appreciate your humoring me while I ramble a bit.

For a chaser, here's the title-free Ignatz story from the 1955 "Four-Color" KK #619. While its frantic events are kinda kontrived, Ignatz' poetic monologue, on the opening page, is Tubby-Talk at its most profound.
While the goings-on in this '55 story are more brassy and bold than amusing and clever, Ignatz' anti-social behavior is too gleeful to resist.

In contrast to the 1952 stories, this seems rather dashed-off. Stanley's workload was more regulated in the mid-1950s. Though he was drawing the quarterly Tubby, which may have consumed more time than usual, he wrote some 480-odd pages of Little Lulu material--for the monthly comic and one 100-page giant. Assignments such as this and the Little King one-shots may have been squeezed in to fatten the ol' paycheck.

In closing, I hate to contradict Dell's advertising copy, but, rest assured--no goodness, or entertainment, could be had in either funny-book pictured in that filler ad.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

More Mockery of the Idle Rich [and the Antiques Scene]: "Andy Panda," from New Funnies 126, 1947

Tidbits come and go all over the internet: this posting from April, 2010 in the animation guild blog offers a piece of original New Funnies cover-art from issue #161 (1950; post-Stanley).

While the TAG post has mostly supposition and errors, it does offer one nugget of information. The artist is credited as Dick Hall. He is one of the mystery artists of John Stanley's New Funnies work. If this information can be trusted, then Hall is a vital component of Stanley's NF period.

(UPDATE: Alberto Beccatini wrote on the guild blog that he feels this is Dan Gormley's work. That makes more sense than Dick Hall. I now think that Dick Hall is the artist of the first couple of Woody Woodpecker Four-Color one-shots, which may or may not be Stanley-written. I can't make up my mind about those two comics. If they're not Stanley's writing, they're by another darn good writer, with a comparable sense of the absurd. Jury is still out...)
It was easy to find the published version of this cover, from issue 161 of the Lantz funnybook:

And, while I'm at it, I might as well post another Stanley-written New Funnies story. I promise I'll lay off these for awhile--altho' I'm running out of other new stuff to present here, unless I double-dip into Dark Horse and Drawn + Quarterly's publishing schedules.

This story appears to be by the same artist as the cover piece above. This was done three years earlier, so it's likely that Hall (or whomever) further honed his skills by 1950. Still, it's pretty sharp cartooning, with much invested in the characters' expressions and intentions. This is a big component of what makes Stanley's Lantz material work so well.

The characters, themselves, are ciphers. Stanley invests them with believable neuroses, cognitive biases and other quirks that, like Carl Barks' Donald Duck cast, makes them come alive. This cannot be said, in any way, about the "official" animated counterparts.

This story contains some favorite Stanley themes: the idiocy, greed and brusqueness of the well-to-do; the sheer hooey of antiques, fine art and the deluded souls who lust after such things; status-based anxiety; and, of course, anti-social [but self-justified] behavior. Post-war kids got a lot of subtext for their dime!

Longtime readers may recall this story from the original Stanley Stories site. These smallish scans are the same that appeared five years ago. They're better than other digital scans of this issue I've found, so... there you are.

Stanley is in rare form throughout this story. He devotes the story's first two pages to a display of Charlie Chicken's duplicitous behavior--and Andy's indulgence of same. This is character-enriched comedy on the level of Laurel and Hardy.

And, like the leisurely style of L&H, this scene is allowed to play out as long as is needed. There is no bright action to start this story: just two interior-scene pages of characters talking. (It takes another two pages to get our protagonists out the door!)

One gets the sense that Andy is accustomed to his mail being steamed open, and pre-read, by his domestic partner. Andy does fly off the handle, on occasion--he even threatens to kill Charlie in one 1946 story. By this time, nothing can surprise him. Privacy is not an option in this suburban household!

Once chicken and panda leave the house, an early instance of Stanley's jet-stream sitcomix begins. This story presages the type of frantic, brassy humor plied in Kookie, Dunc 'n' Loo, Nancy and Sluggo and other late Stanley works.

This vein of Stanley comedy pits well-developed protagonists against broad representational "types"--beatniks, fine artists, antique collectors, the wealthy, specialists and obsessives in general. These characters are unfazed by the protagonists. They WANT something, and this need is all they live for. We're encouraged to ridicule their desires, as they're usually Quixotic.

Stanley's Evil Rich are a breed apart. They have confidence and wealth on their side. Nothing can stop them. They resent the (usually middle-class) protagonists' intrusion into their inner circles. Thus, they become arrogant, prickly antagonists.

Sometimes Stanley seems to have a chip on his shoulder via these high-status characters, and their desires. When he relaxes this bias, he can create sterling comedy: witness page 8 of this story, in which an arrogant man of wealth bids on, and wins, an antique chair--just so he can have something to sit on at this SRO auction!

An object of desire, in Stanley's world, becomes contagious, once identified. Page 6, panel 3 is a superb comedic example of this tendency.

The story's narrative stakes hinge on another, unseen scion of the Evil Rich: Andy's Aunt Penelope, who is also absurdly near-sighted. In the end, all the trouble our heroes endure is trivial. The judgmental rich relative is too blind to notice whether the expensive vase is cracked or not.

Without a clear objective, Andy and Charlie might have easily squandered a dozen pages bickering over the letter, and the issue of Andy's invaded privacy. Many days in these characters' lives appear to have been so blissfully wasted.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stan Lee Stories? Little Lizzie--A "Lulu" of a John Stanley Rip-Off, 1949

Here's a Stanley Stories first--a story with no John Stanley involvement! It's the first outright ripoff of John Stanley's characters and style that I've found.

None other than Stan Lee is responsible for this. Artist David Gantz did the pictures. It's an obvious attempt to imitate the early Stanley Little Lulu comics. Just as Stan Lee pilfered Chic Young's Blondie for the execrable "Rusty" (grudgingly illustrated by a young Harvey Kurtzman), he crocheted a simulacra "Lulu" for this "Comedy Features Syndicate" offering.

It's a Nancy and Sluggo rip-off, too--a further irony, considering Stanley's tenure on the Dell Nancy comics, one decade in the future. (Did Stan Lee have a crystal ball in his closet?)

In fact, there may be more "Nancy" than "Lulu" here. That the story is a narrative, and not just a string of stand-alone gags, ties it to Stanley's Lulu work. Gantz's drawings straddle the Ernie Bushmiller and John Stanley-Irving Tripp styles (which have, themselves, some obvious kinship).

This is fascinating for so many reasons:

a) its brazen. shameless imitation
b) how thoroughly it fails to emulate John Stanley's style of writing
c) its weird, lackadaisical pacing, and the use of "Y-I-I-I-I-I!" in place of Stanley's "YOW!"

I present this train wreck for your unjoyment. All aboaaaaaaaaaaard!

Whew. This thing lasted for five issues--and was revived in 1953. Lee also cranked out Little Lana and Little Lenny titles, which I'd assume were similarly derivative. Marvel reprinted some of this material in the early 1970s. Timely humor titles of the post-war years had other "Little" characters such as "Little Vinegar" (Li'l Iodine rip-off) and "Little Aspirin" (a sorta steal of the Kayo character from Frank Willard's Moon Mullins).

Artist Gantz at least tries to do his job neatly--as did Kurtzman, with the woebegone "Rusty." Imitations and cash-ins have been part of the comic-book fabric since Day One. Newspaper comics have had their share of shameless knock-offs. There have been many sincere flatterers in comics history...

If you know of other Stanley knock-offs (not including series on which he worked), please share them with us.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Stanley's Pogo-Shtick: Selections from New Terrytoons 4, 1961

There are still obscure by-ways of the John Stanley saga we haven't covered yet! Today's post puts a 30-watt spotlight on one of Stanley's minor works--New Terrytoons.

This title was a belated tie-in to a brief renaissance at the lowliest American cartoon studio--Paul Terry's outfit. Animation nerds treasure the 1950s Terrytoons for the scenes animated by Jim Tyer. I am among this group of enthusiasts--Tyer's reckless experimentation, possibly fueled by sheer boredom, produced the wildest animation seen in the classic American theatrical cartoon.

Terry's studio cleaned house in 1957 with the arrival of Gene Deitch. Deitch was an apostle of the UPA-style cartoon modern school. He cleaned house and changed the Terry look and feel to a more designy, astro-moderne groove. Only Jim Tyer was hep to this new jive--most of the other Terry animators, vets from the pre-sound era, were annoyed and uncooperative.

Deitch brought in new talent--Jules Feiffer, Ernest Pintoff--and created a brief run of graphically dynamic, unusual animated cartoons. Best of all is Flebus, animated entirely by Jim Tyer. You must watch this cartoon right now...

Deitch left Terrytoons quickly, but the modern graphics stuck. The studio began to produce TV cartoons, while continuing their movie cartoons for 20th Century-Fox. Among their TV hits was Deputy Dawg, which seems to have inspired Western Publications to license the Terry characters for a Dell Comics title.

The Terry characters had previously been licensed by Timely, St. John and Pines. Some of these comics were written and drawn by Jim Tyer and other Terry animators. Like Nancy and Sluggo, the Terrytoons franchise had been around the block a few times before Dell signed up.

These became John Stanley's first funny-animal comics since the late 1940s. They would also be his last. One senses that Stanley was not thrilled to backtrack into this territory. New Terrytoons was a quarterly magazine: evidence that Western wasn't 100% sure of the saleability of the book.

They underestimated their audience. The title lasted until 1979. Stanley appears to have worked on the first eight issues, published from 1960 to '62. This work was done alongside Dunc 'n' Loo, Nancy and Sluggo, Kookie, Linda Lark and the horror comics.

By the fourth issue of New Terrytoons, Stanley had warmed somewhat to his fate. He seems to have enjoyed writing the lead feature, "Deputy Dawg." In this story, he seems to pay homage to his old pal, Walt Kelly. The characters' dialogue, attitudes and the swamp settings sort-of allude to Kelly's Pogo. This blend of strident jet-age sitcom and cornpone characterization is unique to Stanley's work.

Deputy Dawg served as the host of New Terrytoons, introducing each of the book's short, untitled stories.

This rollicking story has some sharp touches. Deputy Dawg is a sort-of Tubby Type, albeit with a very low metabolic rate. His credo of only sleeping while on the job is stated with conviction. The ravenous, conniving alligator seems an obvious nod to Kelly's Albert. Note the frequent mis-spellings of the word "sheriff." Who wuz mindin' th' store thet day?

The cartoonist here, credited by the Grand Comic-book Database as Fred Fredericks, greatly resembles one of Stanley's old collaborators from the New Funnies days. Compare the "Oswald the Rabbit" story I recently posted. It's crude but vigorous. Fredericks seems to have preserved much of Stanley's original energy. In fact, I wonder if this distinct look was present in Stanley's pencils. There's enough similarity in style to suggest this.

Next up are three characters from the old days at Terrytoons. The sub-Tom and Jerry "Little Roquefort" dates from the 1940s, while Gandy Goose and Dinky Duck go back to the '30s. These three short stories are riddled with Stanleyisms, and have the recognizable shrill tone of his 1959-62 work.

The "Roquefort" story amuses with its mind-fudgery, as the mouse destroys the comforting fourth wall of network television. The other two, while minor stories, abound with energy and have their moments. The plethora of roosters in both stories bring to mind the Stanley-created Charlie Chicken, Andy Panda's domestic partner from New Funnies.

They're far better than the drek his Western peers (with the sole exception of Carl Barks) churned out for the other Dell licensed titles. It feels to me like Stanley atoned for the flimsiness of the characters with a three-ring circus of sitcom frenzy.

Stanley's comics became extremely diagrammatic in this period. The abundance of bold, graphic sound effects and visual icons seem, to me, a tell that he wasn't much invested in these characters. [Not much there, to begin with...]

The Dinky and Gandy stories read more like a schematic than an actual comic strip. They don't scan well: there's too much going on at once.

Today's final story is a product of the Deitch regime at Terrytoons. Here is a CinemaScope version of the first "Silly Sidney" cartoon, with more typically whacked-out Jim Tyer animation:

The neurotic Sidney had enormous black comedy possibilities, which inspire Stanley more than the older Terry stick-figures:

The myopic sociopath rhinoceros (a string of words you won't see anywhere else, ever!) Rupert, is a particularly vivid example of the Stanley Terrible Thwarter/Obstacle. He has a low-key repressed rage--a genuinely sinister edge to his character, much like McOnion from the Nancy and Sluggo series. I fear for Merton and Melvin's lives, in the comic book reality that continues after the story's close.

The vultures' open request to dine on Sidney, on the first page, impresses with its macabre freshness. The sharp-eyed reader will note the numerous incidences of choffing in these stories. The Albert-esque alligator, in the "Deputy Dawg" story, uses "choff" as a verb--the only time I've seen this occur in Stanley's work!

Stanley's New Terrytoons work, while not top-drawer, bears its maker's mark. These stories are the best of the eight-issue series. Stanley's writing becomes increasingly mechanical; it's evident that this quarterly project occupied his interest less as time straggled by.